Few of us can trace our ancestry back far enough to identify a forebear who lived in the Middle East and so, I decided to record the history of the Barook family beginning with the history of the early Jews in Calcutta to illustrate our Jewish roots and how closely attached we are to the Promised Land, to my children, my siblings (Anthony, Fabian and David and Hannah) and their children.
My quest to trace my Jewish roots started as a burning desire that was kindled by my father Raymond David Barook (Edward), whose family had disowned him because he married a Catholic (a Gentile) which back in the days it was taboo and was never accepted or encouraged. So, my siblings and I grew up without having known or seen any member of our father’s family except his brother Ezra Barook who frequently visited us. The yearning to know my father’s family, who and what they were began to play on my mind and soul. This burning desire and yearning has no analogue. No one can compare their feelings for their family with the feelings I experienced for my lost family. I began to feel a certain strong attachment towards my father’s family. This attachment is emotional, not nostalgic or theological which cuts across religious and social borders. This attachment is in part, my love for the family I have never known, like all love, is irrational and does not lend itself to being explained and understood.
My quest began in 1984 when I set out in search of my Jewish identity, my Jewish roots and to trace the whereabouts of my father’s family. I was only equipped with my father’s Jewish Birth Certificate, his high school and college certificates and a brief history of his family which he narrated to my brother Anthony and I almost every night like a bedtime story which remained engrained in me.
On February 12, 1984 I journeyed by air from Chittagong to Calcutta and stayed for a week in hopes of finding some kind of a clue but due to the short period of my stay there, I was not very successful in my mission. However, I did not give up and, on June 9th. of the same year I made a second attempt and this time, I did a road trip. I stayed in Calcutta for a month and just towards the end of my stay, I was introduced by my mother’s younger sister Veronica Martin to a lovely Jewish lady named Sue Raphael, who lived at 87E Park Street, Calcutta-16.
Coincidentally, Sue Raphael had a friend in England by the name of Marcia Rhembaum who had studied and worked as a teacher with my father’s sister Sarah Barook and Marcia still kept in touch with Sarah through regular correspondence. Sue gave me Marcia Rhembaum’s address in England and, upon returning home, I wrote to a letter to my father’s sister identifying myself as much as I could and also wrote a letter to Marcia requesting her to forward my letter to my aunt Sarah. Within a month, I received a reply from my aunt alongwith photographs and since that time, I have never stopped keeping in touch with her.
On Friday, June 13, 1986 I left Bangladesh to join my fiancée Sandra Mercer in Canada and we got married on August 16th the same year. My new life in Canada gave me the freedom to start my search for my lost Jewish family.
Having learned from my Aunt Sarah that her brother Aaron and his family were living in Israel, I set out to trace him. In August 1991, after 4 long years of search, I finally located my uncle Aaron Barook in Israel. He was living in an old age home SANATORIUM “GEDERA” GARDENS, 14 Zukermann Street, Gedera, Code 70700, Israel. In October 1991, Uncle Aaron died of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 72. However, I got in touch with his son David and on two occasions we spoke on the phone.
In August 1993, Aunt Sarah called and told me that her first cousin Sarah’s daughter Ruby Ezekiel (who is my third cousin) was living in Toronto, Canada. She asked me if I could locate Ruby (Ruby and Aunt Sarah grew up together in Calcutta).
Having failed to trace Ruby through the telephone book, I got in touch with David Saul, a Calcutta Jew who immigrated to Canada many years ago. Now, David Saul was referred to me by the Jewish Society when I came to Canada in 1986 and was my guardian since that time. David Saul is a very influential figure in the Jewish community in Toronto. I mentioned to David that I had a cousin named Ruby living in Toronto, and he said that he knew Ruby very well and infact, he knew her family extremely well going way back to Calcutta, India. It was David Saul who gave me Ruby’s phone number and that is how I found, yet another member of the Barook family.
Harboured among India’s millions for many centuries were three unusual Jewish communities, located in different regions of the country – the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta; the Bene Israel of Bombay on the Konkan peninsula, and the so-called Black Jews of Cochin in southwest India.
Some Jews of India claim that their ancestors settled there at the time of King Solomon; some, after the destruction of the First Temple; and there is evidence, in the form of two large copper plates in the synagogue in Cochin that a charter was granted to Jews giving them certain privileges in 379 C.E.
The first of the three main Jewish settlements was around Bombay, on the north-western coast of India, where the largest number lived. They were known as Bene Israel and according to tradition they arrived from Palestine about 586 B.C.E. when they were shipwrecked during a violent storm, and an ancient cemetery at Nowgow is shown as the place where bodies of those shipwrecked near the coast were buried by the 14 survivors. For centuries, they managed to keep the laws and customs, but after a while almost everything was forgotten but a few rituals and practices. A world traveller, David Rahabi of Egypt, who visited India in the twelfth century, recognised as Jewish the customs connected with the Sabbath, the rite of circumcision, and the dietary laws. He was responsible for a religious revival. He taught them the Sephardic rites and prayers that they had used since that time, translating the books to Maharati, their local tongue. They did not intermarry and produced scholars, authors, journalists and newspaper publishers. A large number of them have since emigrated to Israel.
A remarkable Jewish community considered their home to be Calcutta from the 17th century through the 20th century. They were the Arabic-speaking Jews of Iraqi origin, the Baghdadi Jews, a community that was essentially transplanted from Baghdad, Iraq, the home of the Babylonian Jews. By the 1800, the Jews had established a vibrant community in Calcutta and were engaged mainly in commerce. Within the vast sea of humanity that made this city on the Hooghly River, they maintained their Judaic identity. They were more educated than the Bene Israel in religion and Hebrew. For a long time these Jews would not allow a Bene Israel into their synagogue, but in late years those restrictions disappeared. Many of the Baghdadi Jews (or Sephardic Jews as they are known) have since emigrated to Israel.
The third settlement consisted of the Cochin Jews (or Black Jews), who lived on the Malabar Coast near the southern tip of India. No one really knows when they came, but they believe that their ancestors were members of the tribe of Manasseh, who arrived in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple. Most of the Jews are coloured, but this area was stratified into three casts, a common system in India. The superior caste was white; the intermediary brown; and the lower caste being black. The colour line forbade them to worship together, so there were segregated synagogues in which they worshipped the same God with the same prayers. They were deeply religious and spoke Malayalam, in their daily affairs, but used Hebrew in their religious lives. They were farmers and artisans, and cultivated a love of Zion that resulted in the migration of many to Israel. This group of immigrants are the only ones that handed over their property to the Jewish Agency to help finance their settlement in Israel.
The Sephardic Jews to which my grandmother Hannah Barook belongs are descended from the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, who have always been looked upon as the aristocracy of Jewry. They were very anciently seated in the Iberian Peninsula, infact it is said by some Jewish writers, notably the Dutch Jew, Isaak da Costa (1798-1860), that some of the Iberian Jewish families claimed descent from the families of Judah and even from the royal house of King David. It seems fairly clear that a Jewish community was established in Spain well before the Christian era, and this could account for the proposed journey of St. Paul to Spain which he mentions in Romans Chapter XV, Ver. 24-28.
In the course of a long history, some of the Jewish families intermarried with those of the Spanish grandees, and many of them have acquired arms from the twelfth century onwards, as can be seen from histories of families which eventually reached England.
The rest of the European Jewish community known as Askenazim, who were of a definitely lower social level than their co-religionists from Spain and Portugal. The bulk of modern Jews come from the Askenazim.
To relate the story of the inception of Calcutta Jewry is, like early Israelite history, to trace the development of one family. For it was a single Syrian Jew, Shalome Cohen and his descendants who laid the foundation of the Jewish Community in this erstwhile capital of British India and one of the foremost commercial centers for many decades.
Born in Aleppo, Syria in December 1763 (Kislev 5523), Shalome Cohen left his native city at the age of 26 on June 26, 1789 visiting en route Baghdad, Hillah and Basra which he left in July 18,
1790 in an English sailing vessel, arriving in Bombay in about six weeks. Already a wealthy man, this Syrian visitor made three trips to Mesopotamia (Iraq) before finally settling in Calcutta.
In November 1792 in Surat, he lent a sum of Rs.15,000.00 to his Armenian landlord, Stephen el Goorji (i.e. the Georgian) without interest but was allowed to occupy the house free of rent. Later, on July 9, 1794 he bought the house for Rs.22,000.00, an indication of his intention to stay permanently in India. Shalome Cohen thus, became the first Arabic-speaking Jewish resident in India.
A keen businessman and a jeweller by profession with an enterprising spirit, he was drawn toward trade in diamonds, silk, indigo and Dacca cloth (fine muslin cloth).
By 1816, there were not more than 50 Jews in Calcutta. In February 1816, a house was hired for public worship in a neighbourhood called Amratolla and after some time, they moved to a one-storied house, later numbered 49 Ezra Street, but originally known as Khan Hajji Masuda. It is here that the life of a tiny community commences.
Immigration from Arabia, Persia, Yemen, Aleppo (in Syria) and other countries saw the Jewish population in 1822 reach over 100 including children. With Moses Dwek (Shalome Cohen’s son-in-law) as honorary minister and mentor, they continued worshipping together in a common prayer hall till the seventh day of Passover 1824.
Though Shalome Cohen was eclipsed on the community scene by his son-in-law, Moses Dwek, perhaps of his pre-occupation in Business and the development of contacts with Indian princes and other authorities, it was just these intimate associations that made it possible for him to bequeath to the Jewish community its burial ground as an anonymous gift.
It happened, an unverified story goes that in an interview with the Nawab of that part of Calcutta, he asked for a plot of land to be utilized as a Jewish Cemetery. The native lord without hesitation, demarcated about ten bighas of land that makes up the cemetery and gifted it to Shalome Cohen. In accordance with Jewish tradition, however, Cohen declined the offer without at least a token payment for land that was to be a burial site for the Jews. He removed a gold ring from his finger and presented it to the Nawab, who accepted it in exchange for the land.
Thus, Shalome Cohen, the first Jewish resident in Calcutta lived to the age of 73. He died in Calcutta on February 13, 1836 (25th Shebat 5596 and was buried with great honor in the cemetery he had acquired for the community.
In the year following Shalome Cohen’s death, there were 307 Jews in Calcutta.Another immigrant from Baghdad to make his mark on the community was Ezekiel Judah, son- in-law of the famed Hakham Moses Hyeem, Ab Beth Din of Baghdad 1785-1837. Having a Talmudic background and training in his native country, he was foremost in advancing matters of religion in the land of his domicile. He was God fearing and pious and was recognised as one of the leading religious authorities. His most distinctive and lasting contribution was the part he played in a joint venture with David Joseph Ezra to build the second synagogue in Calcutta – first also called Neveh Shalome, later came to be known as Bethel Synagogue.
The site of the Bethel Synagogue, in a quarter of the city known as Lembootola, about 200 yards from Neveh Shalome Synagogue, belonged to a Jew, Immanuel Belilios. The structure standing on it was taken on lease by the community in the spring of 1856 for a place of prayer.
The cost of the entire project, including the installation of religious appurtenances, must have been borne singly by Ezekiel Judah, for Eleazar Arakie refers to the prayer hall as that “which Ezekiel Judah made”. The first congregational prayer was held there on June 04, 1856 (1st Sivan 5616). Moses Dwek, recognised as leader, laid the foundation stone on September 9th and wrote in his diary: “Today at 12 o’clock noon we laid the foundation of the new synagogue building and I engraved in china marble in square (Hebrew) characters: This synagogue, Neveh Shalome, stared being built on Tuesday 9th Elul 5616. May I auger good luck in a blessed and auspicious hours, Amen. The said stone we placed at the site of the Hekhal (Ark) and built on it in the name of God in Lembootola quarter, Pollock Street”.
After the death of Moses Dwek, the community persisted and later changed the name to Bethel. The first evidence of the name Bethel came in 1874. According to the commemoration tablet at the entrance of the Bethel Synagogue, the whole scheme jointly cost Ezekiel Judah and David Joseph Ezra a sum of Rs.50,000.00 (some say the cost was as high as Rs.60,000.00 which was equally shared between the two men).
In recognition of David Joseph Ezra’s contribution to the development of trade, and in token of his vast ownership of real estate, two streets in the heart of the Jewish quarter were named after him – David Joseph Lane and Ezra Street in which almost every property belonged to him.
Immigration into India was quickened by persecution in Baghdad and Basra at the beginning of the 19th century. The early Jewish settlers from Aleppo, Baghdad and Basra were attracted to Calcutta for its strategic geographic and commercial position. Besides silks and muslin of Dacca and Murshidabad, which were in demand in Europe in the 19th century, the saltpeter of Bihar was vital for Britain in the manufacture of gunpowder during the wars with France. Against the background of today’s import to India of millions of tons of rice, it is difficult to imagine that India once exported apart of her staple crop. Sesame oil, jute and cotton goods, sugar, spices and lac also were sent overseas through the port of Calcutta.
Besides these products, the early settlers were engaged in two main types of business. The first was the export of opium to the East, mostly China which found a ready and abundant trade. The opium trade was dominated by Jews. The Indian farmer sold all his produce to the British Government of India which auctioned it to the highest bidder, to the value of five or six million rupees annually. Then, it was exported privately to Penang, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore in Chinese boats. Even shipping of opium was almost entirely in Jewish hands. In January 1888, for example, 4546 chests were exported, 2870 being through Jewish merchants – David Sassoon 1220 chests, Elia Shalome Gubbay 1445 chests, Elia David Joseph Ezra & Co.,
580 chests, Meyer Brothers 475 chests and Slaeh Manasseh 150 chests. When Jews wanted to depress the market, they boycotted the auction and picked up the product when prices were lower. The Marwaris, migrants from western India, were their only competitors. Prices fluctuated so rapidly that overnight one might become very wealthy or be reduced to poverty. For the most part, success did not depend on skill or wisdom but on mere chance. By and large, fate seemed to have favoured the Jews.
In the early 20th century, the trade was banned. But, even before then, the Sassoons of Bombay switched over to textile trade and the Calcutta Jews became well established in the booming real estate business.
The second means of livelihood with rich returns was the export of indigo to countries far and near. “Indigo is one of the most valuable dyestuffs which come from Indian markets. Bengal is the home province of the plant Idigofera Sumatrana which is grown from seed sown at the end of March or the beginning of April. By the middle of June the plant attains the height of 3 or 4 feet.
The indigo is contained in the leaf of the plant in the form of a colourless glucoside which is soluble in water and by the joint action of an enzyme contained in the leaf and atmospheric oxygen, it yields indigotine, the colouring matter of indigo”. Some of the other enterprises were in silk, woollen and cotton products made in factories and exported to various countries. They dealt also in precious stones. Burma was also the center for Abraham Aaron Cohen, one of the earliest settlers in Calcutta.
He inaugurated a business in September 1874 at Moulmein, Burma with a capital of Rs.40,000.00 – he died in Calcutta in January 1887 and was survived by six sons and six daughters. The firm of Cohen Bros., Rangoon was owned by his children.
(NOTE: In 1873 Gold was selling for Rs.16.00 & 5 annas a tola = 23 carats).
It has been said that when David Joseph Ezra died in 1882, he was one of the leading property owners in Calcutta. His descendants added to his extensive stakes in land holdings. They owned some of the most imposing edifices in the city. In September 1873, he bought 4 houses belonging to an estate that had to be divided among the sons. They were: 30 Chowringhee costing Rs.105,000.00; 11, 12 and 13 Sudder Street for Rs.170,000.00. Their combined rents yielded Rs.580.00 per month. Another substantial building was Ezra Terrace bought in November 1881 for Rs.263,000.00. He possessed also the palatial Esplanade Mansion and Ezra Mansion.
Up to approximately the middle of the 19th century, Jews made their opulence evident also by keeping slaves, native Indians, both male and female. Some of the well known slave owners were: Moses Hyeem son of Yahya Taazi, David Joseph Ezra, Yahya Solomon Gubbay, Jacob Nissim Isaiah, Isaac Ezra Levi, Sillman Elias Cohen, Ezekiel Hyeem Saleh Sassoon Levi, Raphael Immanuel Belilios and Ezra Ezekiel Elias Musleah.
Dress and language
The Jews of India who hailed mainly from Arabic-speaking countries spoke the Arabic language in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, and wrote it in the Hebrew script then vogue among the Sephardim. The diaries of the early settlers in Calcutta, for example, authenticate this fact. The local Jewish newspapers also used Arabic in “Rashi” script. Influenced by India”s indigenous language, however, they gradually developed a dialect which bore the distinct stamp of Hindustani, the colloquial language of India – and the result was a peculiar admixture of both, employed increasingly in the Hebrew-Arabic papers of the last quarter of the 19th century.
The period between the World Wars saw Western influences intensifying steadily and English for the most part displaced Arabic and Hindustani as the mother-tongue. Parallel to this process was a gradual weakening of the fabric of traditionalism.
A similar pattern was evident in dress. India was always rich in garment variety. The fashion among the 19th century Jews was the Arab garb. Men wore Sedaria (a short buttoned vest), Dagla (a long top coat), Zebun (a long inner garment) and Fez as head gear. The more informal wear consisted of a loose shirt and pyjamas which were, however, considered improper in the synagogue.
Women wore a loose dress, a jacket and shawl. Some wore a “chadder” – a sheet that covered every part of the body except the face. The advent of the 20th century witnessed western style dress in increasing numbers. As one’s language became anglicized, his dress did too. A significant impetus for change came about as a result of large scale white collar and secretarial employment in European firms.
Very few Jews who came to India from Arabic centers in the Middle East possessed surnames. Some of these were: Matsliah (transliterated Musleah), Dwek, Sultoon, Sadka, Matook. Most first names were biblical; some were talmudic. These names were David, Solomon; the twelve tribes – Reuben, Simon, Judah, Benjamin, Asher, Manasseh, Ephraim; other biblical names such as Samuel, Nathan, Elijah (anglicized Elias), Ezekiel, Ezra, Joshua and Daniel also were widespread, the latter four names being the names of Ezekiel, the Prophet; Ezra, the Scribe; Joshua, the High Priest and Daniel, whose tombs are in Iraq.
The form Isaac son of Abraham was not used. Simply Isaac Abraham. Sometimes names of three, four or five generations were clustered and the man called Pinhas Elazar Aaron Ha- Cohen, instead of Pinhas son of Elazar son of Aaron Ha-Cohen or Saleh Elia Ezekiel Joseph Ezra instead of Saleh son of Elia son of Ezekiel son of Joseph on of Ezra.
Children were named for their grandparents, great-grandparents or near relatives: for example, Moses son of Elias son of Moses son of Elias Dwek Cohen. For most part, no religious scruples prevented naming for living relatives. In fact it was considered good fortune for a grandfather to be present for the naming of his grandson and almost exclusively he was the Sandek (Arabic – Sindak). Other second names include Faraj (Arabic – redemption, that is a prayer that the child will bring redemption to the family) or the Hebrew, Rahamim (Hebrew – mercy) or Barook (Hebrew – blessed).
Anglicized versions of Hebrew and Arabic names were in vogue even in the late 19th century when the biblical and talmudic names found in English translations of these books were adopted. Later, social climbing demanded anglicized forms of Hebrew and Arabic names. Thus, Rahamim became Raymond, Hyeem-Hyam, Faraj-Ferris, Meir-Meyer; at a later stage, Abraham became Adrian, Manasseh became Maurice, Moses as a surname became Morris, Elias became Esmond.
In 1892, Isaac Jacob Abraham Berakhel complained he made a mere fifty rupees a month from Shehitah, whereas a centralized Shehitah structure in Baghdad netted 20,000 rupees a year. He failed to acknowledge that Baghdad had a Jewish population of 100,000 and Calcutta about 2000.
At that time, the meat supply was irregular due to the unavailability of qualified Shohets. Conceivably, people practised Shehitah who did not possess Semikhat (certification). It was
once suggested in 1878 that all Shohets show their knives to Hakham Hamoi, a learned visitor
from Jerusalem. Hakham Abraham Elias Isaac Solomon, probably a new-comer from Baghdad, knowledgeable in Shehitah, not without justification made ungracious remarks about the Shohets in Calcutta as a result of which, he was ostracized.
Feeling uneasy and dejected, he craved pardon publicly in Bethel Synagogue on the first day of Sukkot 1877. He was subsequently tested and given Semikha by a local Shohet, Aaron Shalome Gubbay (who himself had received authority from the master, Eleazar Arakie) and was authorized to join the “guild” of Shohets which included at that time Ezra Barook Hakham Reuben – known as Ezra Reuben David Barook (my great-grandfather), a Jew from Baghdad who was a Hakham in Jerusalem in 1856.
The name “Hakham” also known as “Shaliah” is the designation of rabbi in the Sephardi community in Jerusalem and in countries of Arabic influence. A Hakham or Shaliah held certified rabbinic authority for advise on all matters of Jewish religious Laws, customs etc. and to furnish authoritative decisions on all religious questions, perform religious ceremony like a divorce and the issuance of authorization for Shehitah. Hakhams (or Shaliahs) went on their way to all parts of the world from all parts of the Holy Land. One very significant reason for the dispersion of Hakhams (or Shaliahs) far and wide was the search for the so-called “Ten Tribes” who got “lost” when the Kingdom of Assyria, way back in the eight century B.C.E. overran the Israelite Kingdom (then comprised of ten of the twelve tribes of Israel) and took its people captive, fanning them out to the length and breath of the then Assyrian Empire.
History of the Barook family
In preparing this section, I have been able to work in a thoroughly genealogical manner, because it was necessary to trace the origins and whereabouts of the Barook family.
(Hakham) Ezra Reuben David Barook (a Baghdadi Jew) was a Hakham in Jerusalem in the 1800’s. He travelled to India and settled down in Calcutta. At the time of his death, he was survived by a daughter and two sons namely:
- Gala (Gail) Barook
- David Ezra Haim Barook (my grandfather) and
- Mordecai (Mordy) Ezra Barook (Ruby’s grandfather).
Both sons settled in Calcutta and married two sisters (Turkish Jews). David Ezra Haim Barook (our grandfather) married Hannah Daniel (our grandmother) and his brother Mordecai Barook married Hannah’s sister Kathleen Mittanah Daniel (Ruby’s grandmother).
My grandmother Hannah Barook was born on Monday, February 2, 1892 and she died on Monday, September 17, 1965. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Narkeldanga, Calcutta.
Gala (Gail) Barook married (not known, but still being researched) in Calcutta, India and they had one daughter Rebecca who married Joe Abraham who died of diabetic (carbuncles). Rebecca and Joe have 2 daughters, Seemah and Rachel; and 4 sons, Abe, Aaron, Jackie and Nissim. Their whereabouts are not yet known, but I hope to some day trace them if time and my resources permit me.
David Ezra Haim Barook (my grandfather) served in the British Indian Railways for some time. He subsequently, established his own Jewish wine producing business and was also in a partnership business with his niece – the name of the company was called Dawson & Co., in Calcutta. At the time of his death somewhere in 1956, he had accumulated a huge amount of money in deposits for all his children. The huge deposit was put into a special account for 7 years which could only be withdrawn and shared at the presence of all the surviving children. His children went on their own ways and lost touch with one another and as a result after the 7 years period expired, the Indian Government took control of all the money.
I have been told by Ruby Ezekiel (grand-daughter of Mordecai and Kathleen Barook) that all the deceased members of both the Barook families are buried in what may be known as the Calcutta Jews Cemetery which is situated in an outlying area called Narkeldanga, northeast of the city, about three miles from the original Jewish neighbourhood. Until the first quarter of the
20th century its approaches were through unpaved, badly lit roads that made access difficult.
During the monsoons, people accompanying funerals had to wade through knee-deep water and when the motor hearse was introduced it would stall frequently in flooded streets.
Conditions improved as the limits of the city were extended; tarred roads, better communications, transport and lighting developed this section into a residential area.
It is the oldest Jewish institution in Calcutta. None of the early settlers supplied any information about its inception. The earliest recognizable grave is that of Sassoon, son of Hakham Abraham and bears the date of 15 Tammuz 5573 (July 13, 1813).
In 1953, many inscriptions could not be deciphered in the oldest part of the cemetery, so that there surely were a few earlier burials. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were less than fifty Jews in the city, mostly comparatively young, many of whom were still plying between their birth place and India.